Cultural Objects (Protection from Seizure) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:36 pm on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 1:36 pm, 10th September 2021

I commend Mel Stride for bringing this Bill to the House. It might be easy to think of it as somewhat narrow and potentially even niche, but we often underestimate the role that public collections in this country play in communicating our history, our story and our identity to the world, and, similarly, the great role that is played, as the right hon. Member well described just a moment ago, by those same institutions receiving works from abroad so that interchange of histories and stories can occur and they can be told to the British public. What might seem a slightly technical point about protecting those institutions’ ability to do that actually underpins a huge and important role that we as a nation play in the world. I can see the Minister nodding, and I hope that that view is shared broadly across the House.

I have experienced several of the shows and exhibitions that the right hon. Member for Central Devon just spoke of; one in particular was part of a very important year in the life of the city of Liverpool. Being able to receive important, globally relevant works of art from around the world allows cities and institutions in our country to do their job. That has a huge impact not just on tourism and the visitor economy, but on the learning that younger generations are able to participate in. Frankly, what might appear to be a narrow and niche interest is actually profoundly important, not just for institutions such as the British Museum but for galleries and art institutions up and down the country.

With that said, I have just a couple of points to make about the Bill, and some questions that I hope the Minister or the right hon. Member for Central Devon may be able to cover. The Bill takes particular account of what has been a very bumpy year for cultural institutions. The Minister and I have exchanged remarks on many occasions across the Dispatch Boxes about the position that cultural institutions have been in. With some reservations about the scope and the manner in which the Government’s programmes of support through the pandemic have reached cultural institutions, the Opposition share the Government’s view that the Government ought to respond to what has been a very difficult year with support and help to facilitate the things that institutions need to get them through this difficult time. The Bill is one of those things.

The covid pandemic has demonstrated to me how important arts and culture are in this country. It used to be an interesting thought experiment to imagine what would happen if we shut every museum and gallery up and down the land. We did not have a thought experiment in the past 18 months; we had it in reality, and it was horrendous. The Bill shows that if we can make some small changes and facilitations to make things easier, we can see better continuity of our culture, and I think that is a good thing. As I said, it is important, yes for tourism and the visitor economy, but almost more important for learning. Our young people deserve access to the best museums and galleries that our country has to offer, and brilliant works of art from all around the world. People of all ages deserve the comfort and calming influence in their life of cultural institutions. We know about the positive impact that they have on mental health. In order to do that, we have to ensure that the UK protects its leading role. It has an incredible place in the world in demonstrating the very best of global culture. We need to make sure that, despite any turbulence now or in the future, those institutions will still be able to do that.

We have highly experienced and expert curators in the UK. Perhaps in this place we do not recognise enough the diplomatic role that those curators play. As a former chair of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, I have seen at first hand the work that the UK’s brilliant curators do. They reach out to their equivalent institutions around the world and facilitate the exchange of knowledge, works and expertise. Often, it is those informal connections—institution to institution—that, when the world is a turbulent and difficult place, can really make a difference.

I remind Members of our recent debates on Afghanistan. Hon. Members from all parties mentioned the work of the British Council. I think of the terrible events in Syria and other parts of the middle east and the work that the British artistic and cultural institutions did to try to protect cultural assets and the important heritage of the world. Whichever country you are from, that interchange is extraordinarily important. I hope that, if that is sometimes an issue that does not get the political attention that it deserves, we are going some small way to rectify that this afternoon.

I have a few quick questions for the Minister and the Member promoting the Bill. The Bill provides some powers for the devolved institutions. It is important that in this place we have cognisance of liaison with the devolved institutions. I would be grateful if the Minister said on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Transport how she believes that that will happen now and in the future.

Clearly, covid is not the only global event that could cause interruption to the transport of cultural objects. We know that previous incidents have caused international transport to grind to a halt, which is not much fun for anybody. How does DCMS plan to liaise with the Department for Transport and other relevant Departments, including the Home Office, to make sure we have a smooth transition? Finally, what steps do the Government see themselves taking to prevent future disruption and to make sure that any disruption is handled as smoothly as possible?

I would be grateful to the Minister for those answers. I thank the right hon. Member for Central Devon for introducing this Bill, which hopefully will go some small way towards making sure we keep our place as one of the most important nations in the world for preserving our culture, history and heritage.